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Despite tragedy, no will for gun limit renewal The Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004, would have restricted the firepower available to the Virginia Tech killer, but Congress is not interested in reauthorization.

A now-dormant federal law that once restricted assault weapons would have limited the firepower available to the Virginia Tech killer, but the Democratic-controlled Congress is showing no interest in reauthorizing the measure.

Instead, politically wary Democrats are discussing a bill that would make some marginal improvements in the interstate records system dealers are supposed to use to check on the criminal and mental histories of gun buyers.

Seung-Hui Cho, a deeply troubled man who killed 32 fellow students and teachers last Monday before killing himself, was judged in 2005 a danger to himself and ordered to undergo psychiatric treatment.

This would have disqualified him from buying handguns under current federal law, according to the New York Times and the Associated Press.

Yet Cho's record of mental problems slipped through the cracks in Virginia, and he was able to purchase a .22-caliber handgun at a pawnshop near the campus and a 9 mm Glock handgun and ammunition from a federally licensed gun dealer in Roanoke.

The Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004, would have limited the magazine of cartridges loaded by Cho to only 10 rounds. Authorities in Blacksburg, Va., are still struggling to piece together the full story of the massacre. But their estimates of the number of rounds available to Cho during his shooting spree ranged from 15 to 33 per magazine.

"It breaks my heart to say so, but I don't think the votes are there to pass" a new assault weapons law, said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, chairwoman of the House Rules Committee and a member of the House leadership.

Slaughter is among only 39 House members who have signed on to the reauthorization bill sponsored by Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y.

In an interview, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois said he prefers adding more police to the streets over reauthorizing the ban on assault weapons.

Political observers think that most congressional Democrats are still spooked at the backlash triggered in Southern states when a Democratic Congress passed the Assault Weapons Ban a decade ago.

Writing in his memoirs, then-President Bill Clinton, who signed the bill, partly blamed the loss of the congressional majority to the Republicans in 1994 on anger among gun owners over the legislation, according to Brown University political scientist Darrell West.

Vice President Al Gore's 2000 loss of his home state of Tennessee to George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election was partly attributed to Gore's strong stand on gun control.

Since then, Democrats have become much more respectful of the biggest pro-gun organization, the politically active National Rifle Association, which raises more than $230 million a year. Its political action committee in 2005-06 spent more than $15 million on federal and state election campaigns, newsletters and advertising.

The NRA's lobbying and advertising have been effective. Public support for gun control has slipped dramatically in the last decade.

Polls taken since the Virginia Tech murders still show that slightly less than a majority of Americans favor stronger federal gun-control laws, and a poll of 1,336 adults by Zogby International showed that two-thirds of Americans do not believe that stricter gun laws would have prevented the massacre.

Pro-weapons groups, including some evangelical Christians, have already launched countermoves to any efforts to strengthen gun-control laws. One theme is that Virginia Tech's rule barring guns from campus aided Cho because it prevented any of his victims from shooting back.

The overwhelming majority of the NRA's political donations -- 85 percent -- go to Republicans. But many Democrats also accept its campaign funds, including New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a presidential candidate, and Rep. Brian Higgins of Buffalo, who took $1,120 from the organization's PAC before he was re-elected last year and was the only Democratic congressional candidate in New York to receive NRA funds.

Virginia's Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine says he has nothing but "loathing" for those who would make the tragedy a "political hobbyhorse to ride."

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., author of the 1994 ban on assault weapons, does not now opt for renewing it, and there is no Senate bill to reauthorize it.

Schumer told The Buffalo News he is looking for ways to improve campus security. He told the Hill newspaper he will introduce a Senate companion to another bill filed by Maloney, H.R. 297, which has Slaughter's support. Higgins is not a co-sponsor of the bill.

H.R. 297 is designed to improve the reporting available through the InstaCheck system to gun dealers when purchases are made.

The NRA has become so influential that its approval is sought by members who seek to strengthen codes dealing with firearms.

One such legislator is Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Commerce Committee. Dingell, a former national director of the NRA, said he is talking with the organization to work out a deal on Maloney's bill. Dingell's office said he wants the NRA to endorse it.

Maloney's bill would provide $250 million in aid to states to beef up record-keeping, mandate inclusion of mental health information and require the Government Accountability Office, a research arm of Congress, to audit compliance annually.

Still, the bill filed by Maloney almost two months ago has only seven co-sponsors. A spokesman for the House Judiciary Committee, which has control over all gun legislation, said the panel has no immediate plans to consider either reauthorization of the ban on assault weapons or H.R. 297.

The outcome of any debate could have an effect on New York State, despite its having some of the strongest controls in the country.

"What happened in Blacksburg was a terrible tragedy -- 32 people were murdered," New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said. "But if you take a look, 30 people are murdered every single day in America. It's just spread across 50 states, so it isn't a newsworthy event."

Bloomberg founded the Mayors Coalition Against Illegal Guns.

Virginia, where one gun a month can be bought with a driver's license, is the largest single source of weapons used in crimes in New York, according to federal data.

Washington Bureau Assistant Andrew Vanacore, the Associated Press and other wire services contributed to this report.

e-mail: dturner@buffnews.com

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